I’m a well-practiced academic writer, and can put together a multitude of erudite compound sentences with the best of them. I can even use words like “fait accompli,” “historiography,” “teleological,” and “anachronistic” practically on demand. But writing for a group of a few hundred academic historians, educationalists or African American studies scholars has become a very limiting chore for me over the years. To the point where I find the style of writing torturous, and reading academic writing about as much fun as having the flu on a hot and humid summer day.
There are times and places where I as a writer who also is an academic historian and educator need to “take out my driver” intellectually and slam home a twenty or twenty-five page article for publication in a scholarly journal. The golfing analogy works because writing for a scholarly audience requires lengthy sentences, tons of citations, a deep knowledge of scholarly literature, a high level of analytical power, and a form of writing that is much more about discipline than creativity. Even print journalists limited to 300 words have more wiggle-room than an academic writer.
In this era of public intellectuals and easier access to the broad American reading public through multimedia and online platforms, however, the academic writer is no longer writing for colleagues with deep knowledge and sufficient patience for the turgid. Yet far too many of my more famous and successful colleagues continue to write as if their books are destined to go straight to university and major city libraries.
In the past few months, I’ve read Baratunde Thurston’s How To Be Black, Touré’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?, Jared Diamond’s Collapse and Mark Anthony Neal’s Looking for Leroy. I can say for certainty that all of these books have good qualities as well as flaws. Baratunde’s is one that’s repetitive and too often going for the easy laugh, though somewhat thought-provoking on the many ways all of us can be “Black.” Touré’s reads like the man himself, a book that takes itself too seriously, that purports to be a higher level of thinking on race when it ultimately gets lost in its own argument. Diamond’s Collapse is a very good introduction to the calamities of human civilizations and world history for nonacademic readers, but also doesn’t provide enough nuance to show variations in patterns of decline or collapse across civilizations.
The one thing the first three books have in common is that their authors attempt to write for an audience beyond comedians, journalists and interdisciplinary academicians. For the most part, all three succeed in making their books legible to an educated reading public. Neal’s Looking for Leroy (2013), though, is pretty unsuccessful in this regard. Neal critiqued the ways in which individuals like Jay Z, Avery Brooks and Luther Vandross have navigated the rocky terrain of public stereotypes toward Black males and how they turned those stereotypes on their head with the way lived their lives and conducted their careers.
Sounds thought-provoking, except for some issues with language and audience. From the Preface on, Neal’s Looking for Leroy read as if he’d only conceived it for an academic audience. Take his chapter on Jay-Z, where Neal wrote
It is in this spirit of these observations that I’d like to suggest that hip-hop cosmopolitanism represents a fertile location to challenge the larger society’s desire to impose constraints on how hip-hop constituencies choose to embody themselves, as well as a site to challenge stridently parochial notions of masculine identity (and gender) in hip-hop, particularly those solely rooted in the local.
Neal followed up this sixty-plus word sentence with his Jay-Z chapter’s thesis, where he posits “that the constraints placed on hip-hop infused identities are analogous to the historical difficulties experienced by those blacks desiring to be read as cosmopolitan — legitimate citizens of the world.”
There are important nuggets to be gleaned in this chapter and in Neal’s argument. But even I as an American and African American historian had to find a shovel and dig for it as if I was part of an excavation team in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. That’s a real shame, as Neal has tenure, and this is his fifth book. I’d think someone whose platform for writing is as secure as Neal’s, whose audience includes readers outside of academia could’ve easily written Looking for Leroy to be more inclusive and engaging of them.
I’ve worked very hard over the past thirteen years to break myself of the horrid habit of academic writing when it isn’t necessary, which is most of the time. My goal has always been to engage, educate and even entertain with what I write. I’ve always wanted to be thought-provoking, not headache-inducing.
Too bad many of my more famous colleagues continue down the primrose path of writing for academia with the firm belief that the rest of the reading public must catch up to them. They don’t realize — or maybe even care — that the harder path is to write to include, and not exclude.